The Stories We Know

It suddenly occurred to me where I might have first came across the idea of simultaneously knowing and not knowing.

This would have been almost two decades ago, sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s in the years following my graduating from high school in 1994. I probably was back in Iowa City, Iowa at the time and regularly visiting bookstores, in particular the famous Prairie Lights. I was reading a lot of weird stuff at the time, both non-fiction and fiction. Along with reading the likes of Robert Anton Wilson, I came across Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. I then read some of Ellison’s own fiction collections.

In his book Strange Wine, he has his typical introductory comments that are typically entertaining. He told of an anecdote that had been shared with him by Dan Blocker, an actor from the show Bonanza who played the character Hoss Cartwright. Blocker pointed out that the incident was far from unusual and, based on that, Ellison explored the idea of knowing and not knowing, specifically in terms of the distinction between reality and imagination, between unmediated experience and media portrayals.

Here is Blocker’s anecdote as written in Strange Wine introduction (Kindle Locations 54-62):

“He told me– and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases– that he had been approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman had said to him, dead seriously, “Now listen to me, Hoss: when you go home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinee fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman in there can cook up some decent food for you and your family.”

“So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met), “Excuse me, ma’am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play. When I go home I’ll be going to my house in Los Angeles and my wife and children will be waiting.”

“And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all that, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, “Yes, I know… but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben that I said…”

“For her, fantasy and reality were one and the same.”

Ellison sees this as representative of a change that has happened in our society because of the boob tube. He was writing in the 1970s and it was a time when nationalized mass media was really hitting its stride. He described all the hours people spent watching television and the state of mind it creates.

Before the Bonanza story, Ellison shared another story about a news reporter who shot herself in the head live on television. He sees this as indicative of how media has become our very sense of reality. Killing oneself during a live broadcast makes the incident more real. I think he goes a bit overboard on his diatribe against media, but he has a point. I would simply broaden his point and extend it back in time.

Mediated reality isn’t a new invention. Ever since written language and bound books, the world has never been the same. Christians were the first group to bind books. This allowed them to spread their mediated reality far and wide. Even though there was no evidence that Jesus ever existed, this messianic figure became more real to people than the people around them. Untold numbers of people killed and died in the name of a man who may have simply been a fictional character.

To understand the power of the Bible as mediated reality, take the experience of Daniel Everett. He once was a Christian who became a missionary living among the Amazonian Piraha tribe. These people didn’t understand Christianity because they didn’t understand reality mediated through books. They only trusted information they had experienced themselves or someone they knew had experienced. When they asked Everett if he had experienced any of the events in the Bible, Everett had to admit he hadn’t even met Jesus. The idea of blind faith was meaningless to the Piraha. Instead of converting them to Christianity, they converted him to atheism.

As a fiction writer, Ellison should understand the power of words to make the imagined seem real. It isn’t just about television and movies or today about the internet. All of culture and civilization is built on various forms of mediated reality. The earliest forms of media through art and the spoken word had a similar revolutionary impact.

We humans live in a world of ideas and beliefs, frames and narratives. We never know anything unfiltered. This is how we can know and not know at the same time. The stories we tell force coherency to the inconsistency within our own minds. Stories are what gives our lives meaning. We are storytelling animals and for us the stories we tell are our reality. A collective story passed on from generation to generation is the most powerful of all.

Harlan Ellison’s Influence Beyond SF

Harlan Ellison is a fiction writer I’ve known about for many years.  I haven’t read him in a while and I’m only generally familiar with what he has written, but to the extent I’m familiar with his career I consider him a worthy writer and thinker.  He influenced the field of SF greatly and is particularly famous for an anthology he edited.  He was friends with the likes of Philip K. Dick, and I must admit I’d loved to have been around to hear those two having a conversation.

Anyways, my point for mentioning Ellison isn’t merely his greatness in the world of SF.  I happened across someone writing about him in another context.  This person claimed him as being his major influence as a blogger.  I’ll post the piece here in its entirety for I only could find it in Google cache.

The Broadband Teat: a blog by AustinCynic

Sarah Palin and the Conservative Cult of the Common Man

I must begin with a word about my “blogfather,” the blogger who has influenced me more than any other. It’s not Markos Moulitsas, or Jeff Tiedrich, founder of The Smirking Chimp, which I used to frequent back in the day; it’s not Joe Conason, Glenn Greenwald, Cenk Uyger or Robert Schlesinger, all of whose observations I find intelligent and insightful. It is Harlan Ellison. The same Harlan Ellison who does not have his own website– though the excellent but unofficial site Ellison Weberland (www.harlanellison.com) comes pretty close–the same Harlan Ellison who, for all I know, still writes on a manual typewriter.

For about three and a half years, from late 1968 to early 1972, Ellison wrote a column for the long-defunct Los Angeles Free Press entitled “The Glass Teat” and it was primarily about television. Indeed, a great deal of fun reading the book are reviews of now-classic shows both outstanding (Ellison writes a review of the pilot for All In the Family, at that time titled Those Were the Days), and campy (his review of The Partridge Family in its entirety was “Mother of God”). I first read the two-volume collection of these columns at 13, and what resonated with me as a teen in Reagan’s America were Ellison’s prophetic political observations in the age of Nixon and Agnew, and his warnings both about Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, as well as to not underestimate the power of the “Silent Majority.” I don’t know if Harlan had read Kevin Phillips’ The Emerging Republican Majority, written just before “The Glass Teat” started its run, but Ellison and Phillips are to me two sides of the same coin, with Phillips laying out the road map for precisely that which Ellison feared would come to pass: that the working-class whites who backed Nixon and Wallace in 1968 would work to roll back the New Deal and the progressive legislation that followed. Especially the Civil Rights Act and the measures growing out of it, including The Great Society. Ellison was a blogger before there were blogs.

Perhaps none of the “The Glass Teat” columns has stayed with me so strongly as two from October 1969 on “The Common Man,” Harlan’s reaction to a two-hour episode of The David Susskind Show which featured a panel of working-class white men deemed to be representative of Nixon’s Silent Majority. All of them had families, all of them were the sole breadwinners of their families, making between about $45,000 and $56,000 a year in today’s dollars ($8,000 to $10,000 in 1969) working one or two jobs. In watching Sarah Palin on the campaign trail these last five weeks, and especially after the debate Thursday, I came to the stark realization that not only have the GOP’s arguments to these voters has changed little in 40 years, in nominating Sarah Palin they have put a member of “The Silent Majority” on the ticket. Sarah Palin is the goddess of the conservative Cult of the Common Man.

For example, guess who might have said the following: “I have absolute faith in the Pentagon. I believe they are the only ones qualified to set their budget.” If you guessed Sarah Palin, or even John McCain, I couldn’t blame you; in fact it was Frank Mrak, one of the Susskind panelists. But it easily could have come out of the mouths of either person on the GOP ticket.

“It’s the Liberal mafia that keeps this war from being won.” Again, this was a Susskind panelist by the name of Paul Corbett rather than McCain or Palin, but didn’t Sarah Palin say more or less the same thing on Thursday night?

We have a cherished myth in this country, one that states that ordinary, inherently pure outsiders can storm the halls of power and make things better for the country, unlike the entrenched fatcats who have forgotten their roots. This scenario has been played out time after time in movies ranging from Capra’s classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to the more recent Dave.  Both are movies I happen to enjoy a great deal but reality is much messier. Though I would not call George W. Bush a common man, he likes to play one on t.v. and embodies many of their attitudes. How well has he done over the last 8 years?

Sarah Palin is, if anything, worse. Joe Conason, in his current Salon column, says she represents the dumbing down of the GOP. I submit that it is more than that. She represents the final step from merely pandering to “Joe Sixpack” to handing him the reigns of power. Like some latter-day Mr. Smith she plans to turn Washington around with her homespun wisdom and spunk, but Gov. Palin, you are no Jefferson Smith.

Ellison puts it best, and I cannot improve upon it:

“The Common Man is no longer merely as outdated as the passenger pigeon. He is a living menace. He is the man who votes for [George] Wallace because Wallace offers him easy cop-out solutions to the fears his feels. He is the man who thinks everybody can earn a living. He is the man who…believes there is no such thing as prejudice. He is the man who believes in what affects him, what he sees, or what is most consistent with the status quo that will keep him afloat. The time for worshipping The Common Man is past. We can no longer tolerate him, or countenance his stupidity.”

I have hope that this might be finally getting through to the Silent Majority, Reagan Democrats that began abandoning the party in 1968, or at least that this is getting through to their children. My household is firmly in the range of what the Susskind panelists made, and we can barely support ourself on that. Even when you insist on voting against your economic interests at every turn, reality and its liberal bias can slap you in the face, and foreclosure and homelessness is a hard slap indeed.

Instead of being taken in by folksiness, hockey mom anecdotes, and fear-mongering, instead of worrying whether a candidate is “too smart” to be president, maybe we’d better consider whose intellect is best suited for the job. Folksiness and small-town spunk won’t get us out of the mess we’re in.

Harlan Ellison put it best in the conclusion to his two-part column:

“If we are to continue living in this doomed world, if we are to save ourselves, we must kill off the Common Man in us and bring forth the Renaissance Man.”